Yet many researchers and advocates – and, of course, teachers unions – say the focus on tenure and calls for mass firings are a distraction from the lack of meaningful evaluations or professional support for educators.
And teachers say they need the protections that tenure affords. Tenure was a primary demand of the early 20th century teacher's union movement, and teachers still say they fear being fired for illegitimate reasons: to get rid of a veteran and thus more expensive teacher; to give the job to someone politically connected; to punish them for speaking out or teaching a controversial topic. Or, maybe, just because of a bad principal's whim.
"If someone's incompetent, they shouldn't be in the classroom," said Ted Kirsch, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and past president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. Kirsch defended the protection offered by tenure while acknowledging that the evaluation process could be improved. "If people commit certain indiscretions dealing with kids, they shouldn't be there. All we are saying is they should have their day in court."
Critics of current practice say the bar for tenure should be set much higher than mere competence, citing a broad consensus that educator quality has the greatest impact on student learning of anything that takes place inside a school. In particular, the Obama administration and others are advancing the view that test scores need to be part of the evaluation process.
But administrators, not teachers, are ultimately responsible for an undeserving teacher being granted tenure. And clearly they have some latitude in making those decisions.
Linda Katz, president of the Children's Literacy Initiative, argued that there is no shortage of opportunities "to screen out the people who aren't qualified" before they ever take over a classroom: when teachers apply to major in education; during student teaching; when they apply for state certification; and in the hiring process.
"I think tenure should be very hard to get," said Katz. "Right now, it's automatic. It's ridiculous."
In Philadelphia, administrators observe tenured teachers once a year and non-tenured teachers twice. Tenured teachers who receive an unsatisfactory rating must receive semiannual evaluations for three years.
According to Katz, teachers need regular and intensive evaluations, by multiple evaluators taking multiple measures into account, to become better educators. And assessments should not be primarily punitive in nature.
Beginning in the 2009-10 school year, Philadelphia implemented a new system, evaluating 25 instructional practice standards. The post-observation meeting is supposed to be geared toward professional development.
In Pennsylvania, the federal Race to the Top competition has spurred efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. While the state did not win a grant, the Gates Foundation is funding a $769,000 project to research and develop a new evaluation system for teachers and principals. The project could change in tone or direction under the incoming governor.
"The notion that teachers would have to reach a certain level of accomplishment before they are granted tenure is a more viable approach than just, when the clock strikes three years, you get tenure," said state Acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck.
He said that student achievement as measured by standardized tests should play a role in tenure decisions and perhaps in teacher compensation. But he is not sure how big that role should be, especially since many subjects and grade levels are not covered by such tests.
Critics of the use of standardized test scores in teacher performance point to evidence that the measures can rate one teacher high the first year and low the next, and, in raising the stakes of the tests, further narrow what gets taught in the classroom.
"The very notion of defining who is a highly effective teacher is such a volatile phenomenon, especially relying on student test scores," says Aaron Pallas, a dean at Teachers College, Columbia University. "Since the teachers identified as being effective can change from one year to the next, I'm very skeptical of the idea of a wholesale replacement: that you cut off the bottom x percent, that that gets you there."
Others observe that if the bottom ten percent is removed, it's not clear where the hyper-competent teachers to fill their shoes would come from.
Research suggests that school districts can more effectively eliminate poor teachers by working together with teachers, though dismissals are not the primary goal. Involving teachers in decision-making also contributes to the career's professional prestige, allowing teachers to police their own ranks like doctors or lawyers do. And it can boost retention, a major problem that often goes unmentioned in debates over tenure: according to a 2006 National Education Association study, half of all teachers quit in the first five years on the job.
Fault lines around tenure and teacher evaluation emerged this fall when school superintendents from around the country signed a Washington Post op-ed, a "manifesto" calling for the removal of ineffective teachers. After publication, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman withdrew her name, protesting that she had not signed off on the document's final draft, and called for "a collaborative approach to reform."
"Be careful in this time of polarity not to get caught up in the scripted political agendas of individuals or organizations who seek to divide rather than bring us together," she wrote.
In Pennsylvania, this debate is heating up. And lots of people will be jockeying for a seat at the table.